CHURCHILL AND ORWELL: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks. Penguin Press, 339 pp., $28.
Here is a formidable pairing: Winston Churchill and George Orwell, two of the most famous figures of the 20th century, compared and contrasted in a study that has fresh things to say about its subjects.
The more senior British prime minister and the scrappy, chronically hard-up author of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” never actually met, but they were united by shared concerns, argues Thomas E. Ricks in “Churchill & Orwell: The Fight For Freedom.” “Together in the mid-twentieth century these two men led the way, politically and intellectually, in responding to the twin totalitarian threats of fascism and communism,” Ricks observes. “And both steered by the core principles of liberal democracy: freedom of thought, speech, and association.”
They were both writers and rebels against their class and political milieus. The Eton-educated Orwell (born Eric Blair in 1903) took a path of downward mobility as a freelance journalist and polemicist. A socialist who fought fascism, Orwell also warned against the appeal of communism, which he thought was a dangerous fantasy. In his view, totalitarianism, whether on the left or right, presented the gravest threat to liberty. Churchill (born 1874) fought against the tendencies of his own aristocratic and conservative circles, which favored appeasing Nazi Germany.
Ricks tracks his subjects without falling into the usual traps. He is neither sanctimonious about Orwell, nor overly reverential when discussing Churchill. As Ricks reminds us, the former wrote some minor novels and forgettable journalism before he found his stride in 1938 with “Homage to Catalonia,” his account of fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
Churchill was bedeviled by his own issues. The politician spent much of the 1930s relegated to the sidelines by his Conservative Party, uselessly braying about the rise of the Nazis. But the coming of the Second World War transformed Churchill from outcast to prophet and vaulted him to the prime ministership.
Ricks sometimes awkwardly transitions from Churchill, at the height of his influence in the early years of the war, to Orwell, in ill health and working for the BBC from 1941 to 1943. The writer was a marginal figure at this point — his fame was mostly posthumous. Working at the BBC, Orwell saw how facts were massaged (if not outright falsified) in the service of wartime propaganda. His experience there — and the mind-numbing staff meetings in Room 101 — would shape the vision of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent and author of “The Generals,” brings a keen understanding of military affairs to Churchill’s wartime conduct. He knew that war was as much a political matter as it was one of tactics and strategy. Churchill, Ricks notes, did not just give Britons soaring oratory; he also signaled grim visions of possible invasion and defeat. He both steeled and inspired.
Churchill drove his generals crazy with micromanagement, but he cut through bureaucratic stalling, urging action at every turn. Churchill could be wrong, Ricks observes, “yet, on the big things, he was more often right than wrong. He certainly was more right than most of his subordinates, which is why there was such value in his continual questioning of them.”
Churchill, like Orwell, was acutely aware of the class implications of the war. The Battle of Britain was won not by the upper class but by the lower-middle class fliers of the RAF. “They have saved this country; they have the right to rule it,” Churchill conceded.
And so they did, when the Labor Party swept to victory in 1945, ousting Churchill from power. The last chapters of Ricks’ account are poignant. Both Orwell and Churchill grappled with the ascendancy of the United States. Orwell grumbled about the American troops thronging London. Churchill endeavored to smooth the prickly relationship between the American and British militaries. Yet the statesman would never recover his wartime greatness. He wrote a monumental history cum memoir of World War II, still treasured and consulted, but his political hour had passed.
Orwell’s moment had scarcely begun. Politically isolated, he had trouble finding a publisher for “Animal Farm” and its pointed message about the Soviet Union. The writing of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” took up his final years until he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1950. Yet his afterlife changed Western culture. The lexicon of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” — Big Brother has been invoked to decry everything from big government to big tech — is still with us, even at the risk of cliché.
“Churchill helped give us the liberty we enjoy now,” Ricks writes. “Orwell’s writing about liberty affects how we think about it now.” Faced with the unpleasant facts of their time, they did not turn away.